M. Clay Adams: An old-fashioned success story

Author: Eric Butterman


We’ve all heard those romantic Hollywood stories. The handsome kid who was walking down the street, only to be discovered by a casting agent and made a star. The young girl who brought the coffee just as a director was thinking about who would be the lead in his next movie—and from that day on, people brought her the coffee. M. Clay Adams ‘32, who directed television phenomenon Victory At Sea, had his own romantic Hollywood break: He was involved with Claire Trevor (photo at right), who went on to win a best supporting actress Oscar for Key Largo.

Okay, understand that the couple had been going out long before Trevor ever got to Hollywood, and Adams’ first film job didn’t exactly put him in an executive’s chair. No, Adams was a studio executive’s assistant, which meant he would be pouring the coffee, thank you.

The job also meant he’d have a chance to learn the business. For this, he said “thank you” to his boss Sol Wurtzel of 20th Century Fox. Now 96, Adams lives in New Jersey and is long retired—though not from life. He emails and surfs the Internet daily, a technology he caught onto in the youth of his 80s. Despite keeping his mind focused on the present, he can’t help but look back at all he witnessed.

“When I was in Hollywood, I made a series of short subjects for RKO called ‘Picture People,’ which depicted the off-screen private lives and hobbies of the stars,” Adams recalls. For one show, he took newlyweds Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Palm Springs to show audiences this desert hideaway spot for movie stars. He rented a tandem bicycle for the famous couple, and they rode around the town while Adams filmed the various sights. “I often boast that this was the first I Love Lucy.”

Adams once worked with a different type of luminary. In 1946, Albert Einstein had agreed to appear in a small segment of a film by the J. Arthur Rank Organization, one of Britain’s biggest movie makers. Because Einstein lived in the United States, the company asked RKO to film that segment. Adams got the assignment (see photo, above).

The physicist was friendly and unassuming, says Adams, “with a surprisingly cute sense of humor.” But when Adams asked Einstein to pretend to be working on one of his mathematical formulas, “He looked up at me with an obvious glint in his eye and said in his well-known accent, ‘Pretend? I do not pretend.’ At the end of the day, when he handed me back some sheets we had used, I noticed that mathematical equations were scrawled all over them. . . . Kidding, I told him I didn’t want to walk off with any of his secrets. Without missing a beat, he said, ‘I do not have any secrets—only the United States government has secrets.’”

The corners of his mind also echo with other memories, including the endless screams of zealous Beatles fans screwing up the audio feed for one of their rare concerts, a Shea Stadium event that Clay produced a segment of for The Ed Sullivan Show. Or Adams’ own endless laughter while serving as producer on the comedy classic Sergeant Bilko with Phil Silvers.

But before Adams would become a producing legend, he would do time in the Navy during World War Two and would later be asked to direct that war’s most stirring recording, Victory At Sea, a 26-episode television documentary that had audiences glued to their seats during the small screen’s infancy.

It’s often been called propaganda, and although Adams admits that earlier propaganda military films he shot prompted the opportunity, he says nobody outside of his team ever had editorial control in the making of Victory At Sea. “Yes, it was partly through [RCA’s] David Sarnoff’s friendship with the Secretary of the Navy that we gained access to all of our combat film footage of World War Two,” Adams says, “but we were not pressured in the slightest by the secretary or anyone else to make the series a vehicle for the Navy.”

The pressure really mounted from trying to put the production together, and that’s not even referring to 60-million feet of footage needing to be cut down to just over 60,000. “The main difficulties were at the very beginning, trying to come up with the right format for the series,” Adams says. “Before I came aboard, Henry Salomon, the producer, who had impeccably good taste but had never made a movie or television show before, had already hired the famous English novelist C.S. Forester to write the scripts for what NBC then called ‘The Navy Project.’” When Forester turned in his script for the first episode, says Adams, “it was the size of a novel and was about a series of obscure Naval events that no one had ever filmed.”

Adams says it took delicate maneuvering to get Salomon to understand one important thing: “In a motion picture documentary, it’s only possible to show events that are already on film, and that the pictures must determine the script—not the other way around.”

Another major difficulty on NBC’s $500,000 production came from the voice-over talent. “The Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery was originally slated to narrate Victory At Sea,” Adams recalls. “When the time came to show Montgomery the edited version of the first episode, Salomon arranged a screening for him.” The print was full of scratches from being dragged around the editing room, but Adams says it did have the continuity the team wanted. Montgomery, however, didn’t see it that way.

“When the lights came up at the end of the screening, Montgomery turned to Salomon and ripped into him in the cruelest way I have ever witnessed. He told Salomon he was unfit to be the producer of the series, that he would never condescend to do the voice over for such a horrible piece of film making, and that the whole series should be abandoned or started over.”

Not exactly a propitious start, but luckily Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame and the composer of Victory At Sea, found one more way to be of service. “The Robert Montgomery situation turned out to be a blessing,” Adams says. “When Salomon and I were at lunch with Richard Rodgers, we told him about it. He said that he had a young understudy for Yul Brenner in his Broadway show The King and I who had an excellent voice and suggested that we try him out as the narrator for Victory At Sea. The young understudy was Leonard Graves, who later won all kinds of acclaim for the series.”

And its fans were hardly limited to critics. When Victory At Sea first started airing in October 1952, the ratings were so phenomenal that the only person contracted for royalties at the time, the composer Rodgers, is even rumored to have earned more money from the documentary than from all the songs he ever did with Hammerstein.

What the episodes earned for television viewers is immeasurable in comparison to television today, says Jill Olmsted, associate professor of broadcast journalism at Washington, D.C.-based American University. “Victory at Sea and programs like it were the kind of events that everyone would talk about the next day,” she says. “Television had so few stations and programs to offer, that what it did have would dominate. There’s no question that these programs shaped public opinion in a way nothing could today.”

From Director To Producer

While it didn’t directly make Adams a fortune, Victory At Sea paved the way for the second chapter of his television career: producing. Working for CBS in New York from 1952-1960 and rising to the level of director of film production, he produced countless TV shows, many of them pilots. This was sometimes difficult because many actors and writers lived on the West Coast, where television is almost exclusively shot today. However, Broadway was still booming at the time. “There were a large number of excellent stage actors and writers who preferred to remain in New York,” Adams says. “For example, Reggie Rose, who was later the creator and chief writer of The Defenders for me, wrote the famous live television show Twelve Angry Men in New York.”

And, luckily, Phil Silvers was a New York guy. Sergeant Bilko, the most successful series Adams would work on while at CBS, was the comedic story of a manipulative Army man who always managed to stay afloat because of his conscience. From spot-on delivery to physical comedy, Silvers was magic in front of the camera and a pleasure behind it, Adams says. But he also wonders if the real talent always got its due. “Nat Hiken was the most creative show person I have ever known. He not only created the tremendously funny Sergeant Bilko for Silvers, but wrote, cast and directed most of the early and best shows of the series,” says Adams, who produced the show for the bulk of its four-year run.

“Hiken was also frighteningly daring—as when we did a show straight through in front of a live audience with a monkey playing the leading character. Or another show in which Phil sneaks a horse onto the base. With anything possible for the show to get completely out of hand in the middle of filming it, Nat would come up to the sound control room and calmly look down and watch the show being filmed while doing a New York Times crossword puzzle.”

As the 1960s began and it was now certain TV was more than a fad, Adams decided it was time to strike out on his own. Clayco Films, which he would own and run for more than a decade, saw him become the executive in charge of production for such successful shows as the aforementioned The Defenders with Robert Reed (of later Brady Bunch fame) and The Doctors and the Nurses. Although both those shows ran for multiple seasons, it was coming aboard as a producer of the timeless The Ed Sullivan Show that stands out on this portion of Adams’ resume. Working for the man who said, “We’ve got a really great shewwww for you,” Adams learned that Sullivan was much savvier than most talk show hosts. Take Cuba, for example.

“When Fidel Castro was advancing through the Cuban mountains with his rebels on his way to taking over the government in Havana,” Adams says, “Sullivan was somehow able to arrange for an exclusive interview with Castro. This, of course, had to be done on film, so I put together a small film crew to fly to Cuba with him. At the sleazy hotel in the mountains where the interview took place, we were immediately confronted with the fact that there was no electricity to run our camera and sound equipment.  Fortunately, at the last minute, someone found a water fountain that was plugged into an electric outlet, and that saved the day.”

Like many people, Adams remembers Sullivan mostly for the talent he brought to the show—but that didn’t just include acts that were popular at the time. “He called me one day to meet with him and Jim Henson, who he had just had on his show with his Muppets, back when Henson was a complete unknown,” Adams says. “Ed wanted the three of us to discuss a partnership to make a movie with the Muppets. Never following through on his idea, we obviously missed the boat on what would probably have been a highly lucrative venture.”

Comparing Children


Those hot show lights finally dimmed for Adams, shown left at age 97, who retired from the business for good in the 1970s with his wife. But, no, it wasn’t Claire Trevor. That romantic Hollywood story flickered, as many so often do. Their friendship remained, however, and Adams and his wife, Mary, visiting the famed Stagecoach actress when she neared her 90s.

Today, as Adams surfs through the infant technology known as the Internet, it leaves him little choice but to compare it to another child mostly grown up. “Television has completely bypassed being the great learning medium that it was originally intended to be,” he says. "In the early days of television, David Sarnoff and Bill Paley, at both NBC and CBS, re-invested part of their network profits into cultural programs for the public interest. NBC employed Toscanini and left him to form the finest symphony in the world, subsidized by NBC. Even Victory At Sea was subsidized and put on the air without a commercial sponsor.

“By contrast, today’s television has stretched programming to the limits of bad taste with sex-oriented soap operas and even prime time shows which parents are unable to keep their children from viewing. When it’s not sex, it’s violence of the worst order. It’s carried over to the unregulated children’s games that follow the same scenes of shooting and killings that kids watch every day on television.”

A tough assessment? Maybe. Then again, Adams came from a time when television was quickly produced, live and had rare second chances, unlike today when programming has plenty of time to do the right thing. For a man who accomplished so much and worked with so many of the greats, mediocrity was a channel he rarely had to watch.

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Eric Butterman is a New York-based magazine writer and creator of the seminar “Better Business Writing: From E-mails To Everything That Makes You Money.” He can be contacted at ericbutterman@yahoo.com.